Flying the Dead Babies

As I’m loading the Cessna 185 in the oppressive heat of the Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela airport, I wonder where I should lay the dead baby—in the cabin or the belly pod? The father speaks little English, but I can read his abject eyes. His home is 230 miles away, up the Orinoco River, and he has to return there to bury his dead little boy. Will we get there today?

I think back to a week ago. We’re landing at Tama Tama, a remote New Tribes Mission base on the Orinoco River. (We call the mission “NTM.”) With me is a Venezuelan doctor who wishes to examine several sick people, mostly Yekuana Indians. While the doctor works, I go to Erma Killam’s house for a huge lunch of fried plantains, yucca, and rice, and then return to the airstrip to hand-pump gasoline out of 55-gallon drums into the plane’s two wing tanks.

The doctor walks out to the airstrip. “I treated several people,” he says, “but we have two sick Yekuana babies that need to go back with us to the Puerto Ayacucho hospital. We don’t have the medicines or equipment to treat them here.”

We decide to leave immediately. The doctor climbs in next to me in the front and holds one of the tiny babies, a girl. The father of the little boy sits in the back holding his infant son.

Soon we are hurtling along at 10,000 feet over the jungle floor, looking down at what appears to be miles and miles of broccoli occasionally cut by twisting, muddy rivers. The discomfited baby girl lies in the doctor’s arms with eyes wide open, too weak to cry. In the back, a flickering flame of life causes the infant boy to turn in his father’s arms, arms filled with threadbare hopes. The engine’s drone makes my drowsy eyes drop. The doctor sees me and yells, “Caramba; está dormido!” (He’s asleep!) After that, he talks constantly, and I try to stay more alert. After we land, I drive the doctor, the two babies, and the father to the hospital.

The next morning I learn we were too late for the little girl—she died during the night. Venezuelan law demands burial 24 hours after death, so we must fly back to Tama Tama today. Russ, the NTM supply man, says, “Well, we can get together 200 kilos of supplies to round out the flight.”

Another missionary tells me, “I need to get back to Tama Tama, so I’ll travel with you, too.” We wrap the dead baby in cloths and place her on the airplane cabin floor. No relative accompanies the body.

We’ve radioed ahead, so a large group of missionaries and Yekuana people meet us at the Tama Tama airstrip. The father delivers the baby into the weeping mother’s arms and soon she and a host of relatives and friends file slowly away to the cemetery. This cemetery already holds several NTM missionaries including Bob, who died of hepatitis, and Joey his son, who was eaten by piranhas after he dove into the Orinoco River.

I no sooner land back at Puerto Ayacucho, than I learn that the second baby died shortly after the first one did. The anxious father begs me, “Capitan, will you please fly my son back?”

I tell him, “It’s too late to fly today; we’ll have to go tomorrow.”

But the next day dawns cloudy and squally. Tama Tama reports rain, low clouds, and lightning. We wait several hours, but the weather does not improve. I have to tell the father, “We can’t fly today; we must wait one more day.”

The next morning I’m up early, driving our green Chevrolet truck down to pick up the father and his dead son. Puerto Ayacucho does not have a morgue, so the baby has been lying solitary somewhere in this stifling heat and humidity. We have to act discreetly because we’re violating Venezuelan law—it’s been almost two days since the baby died.

We drive out to the airport. When we place the baby in the airplane cabin I detect a faint odor. I tell the father, “I’m sorry—we must place the baby down in the plane’s belly pod.”

The father hesitates. “No podemos llevarlo en cabina?” (We can’t carry him in the cabin?)

I tell him, “I’m afraid we cannot.” We open the pod’s small cargo door and gently lay the body inside. It weighs almost nothing.

The weather is good and the flight back to Tama Tama uneventful. Once again I’ve radioed ahead, and a small crowd has gathered beside the airstrip. As we roll to a stop, the father exits the plane and prostrates himself face down on the ground before his distraught wife and all the relatives. Tears and regret. He’s wailing, “I did all I could. I did all I could. We could not save him!” The family gathers around. Some old women stick lighted candles into the mud nearby.

There stands the mother, still rounded from her recent pregnancy. Perhaps she’s thinking of the birthing pangs, the agony of labor, the joyous sound of the baby’s birth cries—but now, nevermore. We hand her the still, small bundle which she places inside a tiny, unpainted wooden box her family has prepared. She lays the baby on some cloths, with his little head resting on a hand-sewn pillow. Men pound the wooden lid shut. Then the whole group journeys to the cemetery where friends have already dug the grave.

I am solo on the return flight back to Puerto Ayacucho, alone to ponder these deaths and ponder our purpose here in Territorio Amazonas. Could we have flown the babies out sooner? Why is the Puerto Ayacucho hospital so limited? How do I begin to understand the sorrow of the relatives? Babies die regularly in Amazonas—infected umbilical cord, dehydration, colds, malaria. I remember adult deaths also—Ed Killam, who I flew for burial in Tama Tama after he died of leukemia in the capital city. Then there was that Yanomamo man who died in Puerto Ayacucho, 400 miles from his home. The NTM missionary had to himself build the funeral fire and when the fire cooled, gather the bones for transfer home.

The airplane has saved other lives, and I trust that it has helped demonstrate God’s love for the Amazonas people, but today the plane was transformed into a flying hearse. I pray God’s consolation for the grieving family, and for all those in pain across this vast Amazonas jungle.

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